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Black Ops: Silencing the Whiners, Boring Everyone Else

With Black Ops competitive multiplayer, Treyarch's design decisions heal Call of Duty by ruining it.

I devoured Modern Warfare 2 (MW2) competitive multiplayer, playing it for over 300 hours. But after playing Black Ops (BO) competitive multiplayer for just a couple of days, I simply don't feel like playing it anymore. It's almost as though Treyarch tried to remove all the "pain" from Call of Duty and in doing so simply created a numbing experience. Here's what I think MW2 did right and BO does so wrong:

1) CoD Points Homogenize Progression. In MW2, unlocking every attachment to every weapon required some strange gameplay choices as well as skill with undesirable weapons. Why would I put an ACOG on my light machine gun? Well, to unlock the thermal of course! Why would I want a thermal on an LMG? I wouldn't but it's fun to get anyway. BO robs this experience by homogenizing the entire skill economy around CoD Points (CP) and XP. You don't unlock equipment by demonstrating specific skills -- rather you gain generic CoD points and XP by simply playing the game. Arguably, you could unlock almost everything in the game using one weapon in one game mode. Sure, some of the killstreaks cost thousands of CP but it's nothing like trying to get sniper kills with a drifting ACOG sight in MW2. A good game incentivizes various styles of play and challenges players to do different things. BO's "one way to get everything" CP system fails miserably.

2) Perks No Longer Matter (Nor Do Attachments). In an effort to balance the gameplay, Treyarch weakened all of the perks. They stripped out perks that increase damage. They lessened the footstep sound effects, making Ninja almost useless. And who the hell uses Gas Mask or Flak Jacket? They introduced redudant attachments, such as reflex sight and red dot sight and extended mags and dual mags. They added completely cosmetic extras like custom red dots and gun graffiti. All this adds up to... a game that plays the same way every time. With MW2, Infinity Ward gave us Lego Blocks to build strange and wonderful vehicles. Treyarch gave us all the same match box car and some cosmetic stickers.

3) Killstreaks are Boring. In BO, killstreaks no longer stack (that is killstreaks don't lead to more killstreaks.) This means choosing good, deadly combinations of killstreaks no longer matters. But not only that, gaining killstreaks is homogeneous again -- the path to my next killstreak is shooting more people and high level killstreaks rarely happen. In MW2, getting high level killstreaks had a unique narrative: "Remember the time I called a Harrier which killed two people that got me a pavelow that got me a chopper gunner?" BO's narrative is always, "Then I shot two guys and got my next killstreak."

4) The Maps Lack Character. Each multiplayer map in MW2 had personality -- both visually and in terms of gameplay. There were "set pieces" everywhere, each of which had its own gameplay puzzle. What's the best way to assault the Fun House? Should I snipe on Wasteland or assault the tunnels? BO lacks this character. There are simply too many maze like maps, each with similar gameplay. In urban maps, there are simply too many non-descript rectangular rooms with four deadly corners and multiple entrances. Equally prevalent are too obvious sniper's nests, which are random raised platforms that don't make any logical architectural sense. There are too many short distance view lines and grids that allow for too much flanking and no choke points. This makes every map play similarly, with short and mid range automatic weapons ruling the day, every day, every where. Sniper rifles are nearly useless.

MW2 maps are like quirky friends who, once you know them, you can manipulate to your every whim. BO maps are like bland cocktail party strangers. You can carry a conversation about work and the weather but you won't want to talk with them again anytime soon.

In the end...

To please vocal fans, Treyarch tried to create a balanced game that focuses on one style of play. Instead, they created a homogenous, boring play experience. Sure, Modern Warfare 2 fans complained loudly and passionately about unbalanced noob tubes, the commando perk, overpowered killstreaks, silenced UMPs, shotguns and quick scoping sniper maniacs. MW2 was "unbalanced" in a dozen different ways that drove people passionately crazy. But people only complained because there were so many different ways to play, some of which ran counter to certain other styles of play.

Black Ops inspires neither the complaints nor the passion of Modern Warfare 2. Treyarch has quieted the whiners by providing only one way to play. But everyone knows, you don't steal the oil from the three silent wheels to quiet the squeaky one.

Postscript: Wager Matches

I should mention that wager matches are a delightful short term aside to the "standard" competitive multiplayer matches. Of course, wager matches side step a lot of the problems with standard competitive multiplayer progression: there are no killstreaks, everyone uses the same weapons and perks, everyone starts at the same level every match and CoD Points are simply currency for betting.  Of course, what you do with the currency, which is unlock new weapons and perks, is still not very interesting in the long term. And the maps are still boring. (Nuketown is the most amusing boring map as it plays up it's own artificial boringness. Call it a meta-concept map?)

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